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Forasmuch as many have taken in hand to set forth in order a declaration of those things which are most surely believed among us,
[Forasmuch as many have taken in hand, etc.] whereas it was several years after the ascension of our Lord before the four books of the holy gospel were committed to writing; the apostles, the seventy disciples, and other ministers of the word, in the mean time everywhere dispersing the glad tidings: no wonder if any pious and greedy auditors had, for their own memory’s sake and the good of others, noted in their own private table-books as much as they were capable of carrying from the sermons and discourses which they so frequently heard. Nor is it more strange if some of these should from their own collections compile and publish now and then some commentaries or short histories of the passages they had met with. Which, however they might perform out of very good intentions, and a faithful impartial pen, yet were these writings far from commencing an infallible canon, or eternal unalterable rule of the Christian faith.
It was not in the power of this kind of writers either to select what the Divine Wisdom would have selected for the holy canon, or to declare those things in that style wherein the Holy Spirit would have them declared, to whom he was neither the guide in the action nor the director of their pen.
Our evangelist, therefore, takes care to weigh such kind of writings in such a balance as that it may appear they are neither rejected by him as false or heretical, nor yet received as divine and canonical: not the first, because he tells us they had written even those very things which the heavenly preachers had delivered to them; not the latter, for to those writings he opposeth, that he himself was one that had perfect understanding of things from above. Of which we shall consider in its proper place.
[To set forth in order a declaration.] A kind of phrase not much unlike what was so familiar amongst the Jews, an orderly narration; saving, that that was more peculiarly applied by them to the commemoration of the Passover. And yet it is used in a larger sense too, who was he who set forth in order a declaration.
[Of those things which are most surely believed among us, etc.] let us recollect what the unbelieving Jews think and say of the actions, miracles, and doctrine of Christ; and then we shall find it more agreeable to render this clause, of those things which are most surely believed among us; according to what Erasmus, Beza, our own English translators, and others, have rendered it, than with the vulgar, of the things which are fulfilled amongst us. They had said, "This deceiver seduceth the people, those wonders he did were by the power of magic; ’but we do most surely believe those things which he did and taught.’"
Even as they delivered them unto us, which from the beginning were eyewitnesses, and ministers of the word;
[Which from the beginning were eyewitnesses and ministers of the word, etc.] if from the beginning have reference to the time wherein Christ published the gospel upon earth, as no one need to doubt, then there is little distinction to be made between eyewitnesses and ministers; for who from that time had been made a minister of the word; that had not been an eyewitness and seen Christ himself? so that we may easily conjecture who are these eyewitnesses and ministers here, viz., the apostles, the seventy disciples, and others that filled up the number of the hundred and twenty, mentioned Acts 1:15.
It is said of Mnason, that he was an old disciple; Acts 21:16. It may be supposed of him, that he had been a disciple from the beginning; that is, from the very time wherein Christ himself published his glad tidings. Those words a good while ago; Acts 15:7; ought to be understood also in this sense.
It seemed good to me also, having had perfect understanding of all things from the very first, to write unto thee in order, most excellent Theophilus,
[Having had perfect understanding of all things from the very first.] This is not indeed ill rendered, having understood these things from the very first; but it may perhaps be better, having attained to an understanding of these things from above; -- from heaven itself. So from above signifies from heaven; John 3:3; John 3:31; John 19:11; James 1:17; James 3:17; etc. For,
I. This version includes the other: for he that hath a perfect understanding of these things from above; or by divine inspiration, did understand them from the beginning.
II. Take notice of the distinction that is in Josephus, He that undertakes to give a true relation of things to others, ought himself to know them first very accurately, having either very diligently observed them himself, or learned by inquiry from others. Now if St. Luke had writ his history as "he had learned from others" (as they wrote whom he instances in Luke 1:1), then he had been amongst those that had learned from others. Nor could he promise more than they might do, of whom he said, that many had taken in hand; etc.
[Most excellent Theophilus.] There is one guesses this most excellent Theophilus to have been an Antiochian, another thinks he may be a Roman; but it is very uncertain either who or whence he was. There was one Theophilus amongst the Jews, at that very time, probably, when St. Luke wrote his Gospel; but I do not think this was he. Josephus mentions him; "King Agrippa, removing Jesus the son of Gamaliel from the high priesthood, gave it to Mathias the son of Theophilus: in whose time the Jewish war began."
There was in the days of Herod, the king of Judaea, a certain priest named Zacharias, of the course of Abia: and his wife was of the daughters of Aaron, and her name was Elisabeth.
[Of the course of Abia.] They are very little versed in the Holy Scriptures, and less in the Jewish learning, that could imagine this Zacharias to have been the high priest, when he is said to have been but of the eighth course, and to have attained this turn of attendance by lot.
As to the institution of the courses under the first Temple, there is no need to say anything, because every one hath it before him, 1 Chronicles_24. But under the second Temple there was indeed some difference, not as to the order of their courses, but as to their heads and families. Of which thing the Talmudists treat largely, and indeed not altogether from the purpose: let them comment in my stead:
"Four courses of priests went up out of Babylon; Jedaiah, Harim, Pashur, and Immer, Ezra 2:36; etc. The prophets, who were conversant amongst them at that time, obliged them, that if Jehoiarib himself should come up from the captivity, that he should not thrust out the course that preceded him, but be, as it were, an appendix to it. The prophets come forth, and cast in four-and-twenty lots into the urn; Jedaiah comes, and having drawn five, himself was the sixth. Harim comes, and having drawn five, himself was the sixth. Pashur comes, and having drawn five, himself was the sixth. Immer comes, and having drawn five, himself was the sixth. It was agreed amongst them that if Jehoiarib himself should return out of captivity, he should not exclude the foregoing course, but be, as it were, an appendix to it. The heads of the courses stand forth, and divide themselves into the houses of their fathers," etc. We have the same thing in Babylonian Erachin; folio 12. 1.
If these things be true (and, indeed, by comparing them with the place in Ezra before quoted, we may believe they are not much amiss), then the course of Abiah; both here and Nehemiah 12:17; must not so much be understood of the stock or race of Abijah, as that that course retained the name of Abijah still. For though there were four-and-twenty classes made up of the four only named, yet did they retain both their ancient order and ancient names too. If therefore Jehoiarib, i.e. His course, should come up out of Babylon (which, however, did not happen), it was provided that he should not disturb the fixed and stated order by intruding into the first place; but retaining the name of Jehoiarib in the first class, which consisted now of those of Jedaiah, his course; should be distributed amongst those orders.
II. The Rabbins have a tradition: there were twenty-four courses of priests in the land of Israel, and twelve courses in Jericho. What! Twelve in Jericho? This would increase the number too much. No; but there were twelve of those in Jericho; that when the time came about that any course should go up to Jerusalem, half a course went up from the land of Israel, and half a course from Jericho, that by them might come a supply both of water and food to their brethren that were at Jerusalem.
Gloss: -- "When the time came that any course should go up to Jerusalem, it divided itself, that half of it should go to Jericho, that they might supply their brethren with water and food," etc.
III. As to the circulation of these courses or turns; we may guess something of it from the Gloss in Midras Coheleth. The Midras itself hath these words: "It is R. Chaija’s tradition: It is written, Seven weeks shall be complete; i.e. Between the Passover and Pentecost, Leviticus 23:15. But when are they so? When Joshua and Shecaniah do not interfere."
Where the Gloss, from another author, hath it thus: "when the calends of the month Nisan fall in with the sabbath, then doth the Passover fall in with the sabbath too: and then let them begin to number from the going out of the sabbath, and the weeks will be complete according to the days of the creation. He takes an instance from Joshua and Shecaniah. For there were twenty-four courses, which took their turns alternately every sabbath: amongst which Joshua was the ninth, and Shecaniah the tenth. On the first week of the month Nisan, Jehoiarib was the first course; on the second week Jedaiah; on the paschal week, all the courses attended together. The six weeks to that sabbath that immediately preceded the Pentecost, there ministered six courses, Harim, Seorim, Malchijah, Mijamin, Hakkos, Abiah. In the sabbath that precedes the Pentecost, Joshua enters, but does not attend till after Pentecost. Behold, Joshua and Shecaniah are not between the Passover and Pentecost: for if Joshua was between the Passover and Pentecost, the weeks would not be complete according to the days of the creation."
He adds a great deal more, but, I confess, it is beyond my reach: such is that that immediately follows: "They are not complete as the days of the creation; for we may number from three to three, or from five to five; and so Joshua and Shecaniah will enter
However, by the whole series of the discourse it appears, that the beginning of the double circulation of the courses was with the twofold beginning of the year, Nisan and Tisri; as also that all the courses performed their ministry together in the feasts. Here, indeed, is mention only as to the Passover; but we do not want for authorities to make it out, that as they did so then, so also at the feast of Pentecost and Tabernacles. Let Jehoiarib, therefore, begin the first course in the beginning of the month Nisan; and (remembering, that all the courses together performed their service at the Passover and Pentecost) the courses will all have run out in half the year; for so (taking in those two feasts) six-and-twenty weeks are spent off. Then let Jehoiarib begin again with the month Tisri; and suppose all the courses jointly ministering at the feast of Tabernacles, and they will have finished their round (excepting one week over) by the month Nisan again: which gap of that one week how it is filled up, as also the intercalar month when it happened, would be too much for us to discuss in this place.
IV. The course of Bilgah is put out of its just order, and thrown into the last place, if that be true, which we meet with in Jerusalem Succah. They say, "All that went into the Mountain of the Temple made their entry on the right hand, and went out at the left: but Bilgah went towards the south, because of the apostasy of his daughter Mary: for she went and married a certain soldier of the kingdom of the Grecians. He came and struck the top of the altar, saying, ’O wolf, wolf; thou that devourest all the good things of Israel, and yet in a time of straits helpest them not.’ There are also that say, that the reason why this was thus ordered was, because Bilgah’s course was once neglected, when it came about to them to have gone up to have performed their ministry. Bilgah, therefore, was always amongst those that went out, as Isbab was amongst those that came in; having cast that course out of their order."
V. "For every course there was a stationary assembly of priests, Levites, and Israelites, at Jerusalem. When the time came, wherein the course must go up, the priests and the Levites went up to Jerusalem; but the Israelites that were within that course; all met within their own cities, and read the history of the creation, Genesis_1; and the stationary men fasted four days in that week; viz. From the second to the fifth."
Gloss: "There was a stationary assembly for every course stated and placed in Jerusalem, who should assist in the sacrifices of their brethren: and besides these that were stated in Jerusalem, there was a stationary assembly in every city. All Israel was divided into twenty-four stations; according to the twenty-four courses. There was the station of priests, Levites, and Israelites, at Jerusalem; the priests of the course went up to Jerusalem to their service, the Levites to their singing; and of all the stations; there were some appointed and settled at Jerusalem that were to assist at the sacrifices of their brethren. The rest assembled in their own cities, poured out prayers that the sacrifices of their brethren might be accepted; fasting, and bringing forth the book of the law on their fast-day," etc. So the Gloss hath it.
The reason of this institution as to stationary-men is given us in the Misna; For how could every man’s offering be made, if he himself were not present? Now, whereas the daily sacrifice, and some other offerings, were made for all Israel, and it was not possible that all Israel should be present, these stationaries were instituted, who, in the stead of all Israel, should put their hands upon the daily sacrifice, and should be present at the other offerings that were offered for all Israel. And while these were performing this at Jerusalem, there were other stationaries in every course; who, by prayers and fasting in their own cities, helped forward, as much as they could, the services of their brethren that were at Jerusalem.
"The children of Israel lay on their hands, but the Gentiles do not. The men of Israel lay on their hands, but the women do not. R. Jose saith, Abba Eliezer said to me, We had once a calf for a peace offering: and bringing it into the Court of the Women, the women put their hands upon it: not that this belonged to the women so to do, but that the women’s spirits might be pleased." A remarkable thing.
The priests, throughout all the courses grew into a prodigious number, if that be true in Jerusalem Taanith; "R. Zeora in the name of Rabh Houna said, That the least of all the courses brought forth eighty-five thousand branches of priests." A thing not to be credited.
[And he wife was of the daughters of Aaron.] In the Talmudists, a priestess; viz. One born of the lineage of priests. It was lawful for a priest to marry a Levites, or indeed a daughter of Israel: but it was most commendable of all to marry one of the priests’ line. Hence that story in Taanith; "Fourscore pair of brethren-priests took to wife fourscore pair of sister-priestesses in Gophne, all in one night."
There was hardly any thing among the Jews with greater care and caution looked after than the marrying of their priests; viz. that the wives they took should not by any means stain and defile their priestly blood: and that all things which were fit for their eating should be hallowed. Hence that usual phrase for an excellent woman, She deserves to marry with a priest.
Josephus speaks much of this care, that the whole priestly generation might be preserved pure and unblended.
[Elisabeth.] The Seventy give this name to Aaron’s wife, Exodus 7:23.
And they were both righteous before God, walking in all the commandments and ordinances of the Lord blameless.
[In all the commandments and ordinances, etc.] So Numbers 36:13; These are the commandments and judgments. It would perhaps seem a little too fine and curious to restrain the commandments to the decalogue; or ten commandments; and the ordinances to the ceremonial and judicial laws; though this does not wholly want foundation. It is certain the precepts delivered after the decalogue, from ExoNumbers 36:13, are called judgments; or ordinances; Exodus 21:1; Exodus 24:3.
The Vulgar can hardly give any good account why he should render ordinances by justifications; much less the followers of that translation why they should from thence fetch an argument for justification upon observation of the commands, when the commands and institutions of men are by foreign authors called ordinances; nay, the corrupt customs that had been wickedly taken up have the same word, 1 Samuel 2:13; the priest’s ’custom’ with the people was; etc. 2 Kings 17:8; and walked in the ’statutes’ of the heathen
The word ordinance is frequently rendered by those interpreters from ordain; which, to wave all other instances, may abundantly appear from Psa2 Kings 17:8. And the very things which the Jews speak of the Hebrew word obtain also in the Greek.
"Perhaps Satan and the Gentiles will question with Israel, what this or that command means, and what should be the reason of it. The answer that ought to be made in this case is, It is ordained; it is a law given by God, and it becomes not thee to cavil."
"Ye shall observe my statutes; [Leviticus 18:4] that is, even those which Satan and the nations of the world do cavil at. Such are those laws about eating swine’s flesh; heterogeneous clothing; the nearest kinsman’s [leviri] putting off the shoe; the cleansing of the leper, and the scapegoat. If, perhaps, it should be said that these precepts are vain and needless, the text saith, ’I am the Lord. I, the Lord, have ordained these things; and it doth not become thee to dispute them.’ " They are ordinances; just and equal, deriving their equity from the authority of him that ordained them.
And it came to pass, that while he executed the priest’s office before God in the order of his course,
[In the order of his course.] "The heads of the courses stood forth, and divided themselves into so many houses of fathers. In one course; perhaps, there were five, six, seven, eight, or nine houses of fathers: of the course wherein there were but five houses of fathers, there were three of them ministered three days, and two four days; if six, then five served five days, and one two days; if seven, then every one attended their day; if eight, then six waited six days, and two one day; if nine, then five waited five days, and four the other two."
Take the whole order of their daily attendance from Gloss in Tamid; cap. 6: "The great altar
According to the custom of the priest’s office, his lot was to burn incense when he went into the temple of the Lord.
[According to the custom of the priest’s office, his lot was, etc.] "The ruler of the Temple saith, Come ye, and cast your lots
"The room Gazith
"They stood in a circle; and the ruler, coming, snatches off a cap from the head of this or that man: from him the lot begins to be reckoned, every one lifting up his finger at each number. The ruler also saith, ’In whomsoever the number ends, he obtains this or that office by lot: and he declares the number’; e.g., there is, it may be, the number one hundred, or threescore, according to the multitude of the priests standing round. He begins to reckon from the person whose cap he snatched off, and numbers round till the whole number is run out. Now, in whomsoever the number terminates, he obtains that office about which the lot was concerned. And so it is in all the lots."
I will not inquire at present whether this casting of lots was every day, or whether for the whole week, wherein such or such a course performed its attendance. It seems that at this time the number, whatever it was, for the choice of one to burn incense, ended in our Zacharias: whose work and business in this office, let it not be thought tedious to the reader to take an account of in these following passages:
[To burn incense.] "He whose lot it was to burn incense took a vessel containing the quantity of three cabs; in the midst of which there was a censer full and heaped up with incense; over which there was a cover."
"He to whom the lot fell of the vessel wherein the coals were to be taken up; takes it and goes up to the top of the altar; and there, stirring the fire about, takes out some of the hottest coals, and, going down, pours them into a golden vessel."
"When they had come from hence to the space between the altar and the porch of the Temple, one of them tinkles a little bell; by which, if any of the priests be without doors, he knows that his brethren the priests are about to worship: so that he makes all speed, and enters in. The Levite knows his brethren the Levites are beginning to sing, so he makes haste, and enters in too. Then the chief head or ruler of the course for that time sets all the unclean in the east gate of the court, that they may be sprinkled with blood."
"When they were about to go up the steps of the porch, those whose lot it was to sweep off the ashes from the inner altar and the candlestick went up first; he that was to sweep the altar went in first, takes the vessel, worships, and goes out."
"He who, by lot, had the vessel for gathering up the coals, placeth them upon the inner altar, lays them all about to the brim of the vessel, then worships and goes out."
"He who was to burn the incense takes the censer from the midst of the vessel wherein it was, and gives it to one standing by. If any incense had been scattered in the vessel, he gives it him into his hand; scatters the incense upon the coals, and goes out. He does not burn the incense till the ruler bids him do it."
And the whole multitude of the people were praying without at the time of incense.
[The whole multitude of the people were praying without.] When the priest went in unto the holy place to burn incense, notice was given to all by the sound of a little bell, that the time of prayer was now: as hath been already noted.
I. As many as were in the court where the altar was retired from between the Temple and the altar, and withdrew themselves lower: They drew off from the space that was between the porch and the altar while the incense was burning.
R. Jose saith, "That in five circumstances the space between the porch and the altar is equal to the temple itself. For no one comes thither bareheaded, disturbed with wine, or with hands and feet unwashed. And as they withdraw themselves from the temple itself in the time of incense, so do they the same at that time from the space that is between the porch and that altar."
II. In the other courts they were not bound to retire or change their place; but in all they gave themselves to prayer, and that in deep silence: "The fathers ordained prayers in the time of the daily sacrifice": And of what kind soever the prayers were, whether their phylacterical ones alone, or their phylacterical in conjunction with others, or others without their phylacterical, still they uttered them very silently: "He that repeats his prayers in that silent manner that he does not hear himself, he does his duty. But R. Jose would have it, that he repeats his prayers so that the sound of his own voice may reach his own ears." To this deep silence in the time of incense and prayers that passage seems to allude, Revelation 8:1; Revelation 8:3.
When the incense and prayers were ended, the parts of the sacrifice were laid upon the altar, and then the Levites began their psalmody, and their sounding the trumpet.
And there appeared unto him an angel of the Lord standing on the right side of the altar of incense.
[There appeared unto him an angel of the Lord.] It might be a reasonable doubt whether ever there had appeared an angel in the Temple, even in the first, when elsewhere the appearance of angels was so very familiar, much less in the second, when every thing of that nature had so perfectly ceased, till now that the gospel began to dawn and shine out.
What we find related concerning Simeon the just, how "for those forty years wherein he had served as high priest, he had seen an angel clothed in white coming into the Holy Place on the day of Expiation, and going out again: only his last year he saw him come in, but did not see him go out again; which gave him to understand that he was to die that year": we may suppose this invented rather for the honour of the man than that any such thing happened for the greater solemnity of the day.
[Standing on the right side of the altar of incense.] "It is a tradition. The table
So that the angel standing on the right side of the altar stood on the north side: on which side if there were an entrance into the Holy of Holies, as R. Chaninah thinks, then we may suppose the angel, by a sudden appearance, came out from the Holy of Holies.
For he shall be great in the sight of the Lord, and shall drink neither wine nor strong drink; and he shall be filled with the Holy Ghost, even from his mother’s womb.
[Neither wine nor strong drink.] That is, if the Jews may be our interpreters properly enough, "neither new nor old wine"; Numbers 6:3. Greek, he shall separate himself from wine and strong drink. Targum, He shall separate himself from wine new and old. So Deuteronomy 14:26.
"R. Jose of Galilee saith, Why doth the Scripture double it, wine and strong drink? For is not wine strong drink, and strong drink wine?" Strong drink is wine no doubt, Numbers 28:7; Thou shalt cause the strong wine to be poured out before the Lord. Targum, a drink offering of old wine.
Whilst I a little more narrowly consider that severe interdiction by which the Nazarite was forbidden the total use of the vine, not only that he should not drink of the wine, but not so much as taste of the grape, not the pulp nor stone of the grape, no, not the bark of the vine; I cannot but call to mind,
I. Whether the vine might not be the tree in paradise that had been forbidden to Adam, by the tasting of which he sinned. The Jewish doctors positively affirm this without any scruple.
II. Whether that law about the Nazarites had not some reference to Adam while he was under that prohibition in the state of innocency. For if the bodily and legal uncleannesses, about which there are such strict precepts, Numbers 5, especially the leprosy, the greatest of all uncleannesses, did excellently decipher the state and nature of sin; might not the laws about Nazarites which concerned the greatest purities in a most pure religion, be something in commemoration of the state of man before his fall?
There was, as the doctors call it, the wine of command; which they were bound by precept to drink. Such was "that wine of the tithes," Deuteronomy 12:17-18; that twas commanded to be drunk at Jerusalem, and the cup of wine to be drunk at the Passover. What must the Nazarite do in this case? If he drink, he violates the command of his order; if he do not drink, he breaks the command about tithes and the laws of his fathers. Let Elias untie this knot when he comes.
And he shall go before him in the spirit and power of Elias, to turn the hearts of the fathers to the children, and the disobedient to the wisdom of the just; to make ready a people prepared for the Lord.
[In the Spirit and power of Elias.] I. The Baptist is Elias, as our Saviour was David; that is, the antitype, Jeremiah 30:9; Malachi 4:5; Hosea 3:5; etc. It is less wonder that the Jews, from the words of Malachi, should expect the personal coming of Elijah, since there are not a few Christians that would be looking for the same thing, although they have an angel in this place interpreting it otherwise, and our blessed Saviour elsewhere himself [Matthew 11:14]; "This is Elias which was for to come." But they misunderstood the phrase of the "great and dreadful day of the Lord"; as also were deceived into the mistake by the Greek version, "that Elias must come before the last judgment."
II. It is not said by the prophet Malachi, "Behold I will send you Elijah the Tishbite;" but "Elijah the prophet "; which perhaps might be better rendered, "Behold I send you a prophet Elijah." And I may confidently say it would not be so wide from the sense and meaning of Malachi as the Greek interpreters, who by a prodigious daringness in favour of the Jewish traditions, have rendered it, I send you Elijah the Tishbite.
III. If I mistake not, "Elias the prophet" is but twice mentioned (I mean in those very terms) throughout the whole book of God: once in this place in Malachi, the other in 2 Chronicles 21:12. And in both those places I believe it is not meant Elijah the Tishbite in his own person, but some one in the spirit and power of him. That the words in Malachi should be so understood, both the angel and our Saviour teach us, and it seems very proper to be so taken in that place in the Chronicles.
IV. That great prophet that lived in Ahab’s days is called the Tishbite; throughout the whole story of him, and not the prophet. Nor is he called the prophet, Luke 4:25 (where yet it is said, ’Eliseus the prophet’); nor by St. James 5:17. For the very word Tishbi; which is his epithet, sufficiently asserts his prophetic dignity when it denotes no other than a converter. For whence can we better derive the etymology? To which indeed the prophet Malachi seems to have alluded, "Behold, I send you Elijah the prophet, and he shall turn;" etc.
V. But be it so that he might be called Tishbite from the city Toshab; as the Targum and other Rabbins would have it (which yet is very farfetched), that very thing might evince that it is not he himself that is meant by Malachi, but some other, because he doth not mention the Tishbite; but a prophet Elias, that is, a prophet in the spirit of Elias.
So among the Talmudists, any one skilled in signs and languages is called Mordecai, viz. Because he is like him who lived in the days of Ahasuerus.
[To turn the hearts of the fathers to the children.] John came in the power of Elias; not that power by which he wrought miracles
[The disobedient to the wisdom of the just.] The Greek in Malachi hath it, the heart of a man towards his neighbour. The words of the prophet having been varied, the angel varies too, but to a more proper sense. For the Gentiles were not to be turned to the Jews as such, or to the religion of the Jews, but to God "in the wisdom of the just." "The children to the fathers": the phrase fathers; according to the Jewish state at that time, was of doubtful sound, and had something of danger in it; for by that word generally at that time, was meant nothing else but the Fathers of Traditions, to whom God forbid any should be turned to those fathers in the folly of traditions, but to God in the wisdom of the just.
And Zacharias said unto the angel, Whereby shall I know this? For I am an old man, and my wife well stricken in years.
[For I am an old man.] If so old a man; why then was he not sequestered from the service of the Temple by the law of superannuation? Numbers 4:3; Numbers 8:24-25. Hear what the Rabbins say in this case:
"There is something that is lawful in the priests, that is unlawful in the Levites: and there is something lawful in the Levites, that is unlawful in the priests. The Rabbins deliver; the priests upon any blemish are unfit; as for their years they are not unfit; the Levites for their years may be unfit, but by reason of blemish are not. From that which is said, that at the age of fifty years they shall cease waiting, we learn that years may make the Levites unfit. Perhaps the priests also are made unfit through years: and indeed, does it not seem in equity, that if the Levites, whom a blemish doth not make unfit, should yet be made unfit by superannuation, should not much more the priests be made unfit by superannuation, when even a spot or blemish will make them unfit? But the text saith, This is the law of the Levites; not, This is the law of the priests. The Rabbins deliver: What time a priest comes to maturity, till he grow old, he is fit to minister; and yet a spot or blemish makes him unfit. The Levite from his thirtieth to his fiftieth year is fit for service; but being superannuated, he becomes unfit. How must this be understood concerning the Levites? To wit, for that time wherein the ark was in the wilderness: but at Shiloh and in the Temple they were not rendered unfit, unless through the defect of their voice."
And the people waited for Zacharias, and marvelled that he tarried so long in the temple.
[They marvelled that he tarried so long.] There is something of this kind told of Simeon the Just, concerning whom we have made some mention already:
"The high priest made a short prayer in the holy place. He would not be long in prayer, lest he should occasion any fear in the people. There is a story of one who tarried a long while in it, and the people were ready to have entered in upon him. They say it was Simeon the Just. They say unto him, ’Why didst thou tarry so long?’ He answered them, saying, ’I have been praying for the Temple of your God, that it be not destroyed.’ They answered him again, ’However, it was not well for you to tarry so long.’"
And when he came out, he could not speak unto them: and they perceived that he had seen a vision in the temple: for he beckoned unto them, and remained speechless.
[He beckoned unto them.] There is also, Luke 1:62; they made signs. The deaf and dumb man, he nods to them, and they nod to him.
The Talmudists distinguish the judgments given by a dumb man into the nodding of the head; and the dumb man’s making signs.
"If any person be dumb, and yet hath his understanding, should they say to him, May we write a bill of divorce to thy wife, and he nod with his head; they make the experiment upon him three times," etc. And a little after they do not much rely upon the signs of the deaf and dumb man. For as it is in the same place, the dumb person, and the deaf and dumb, differ. Gloss: "The one can hear and not speak; the other can neither hear nor speak."
Amongst the doctors, the deaf and dumb person is commonly looked upon as one made so by some fit of palsy or apoplexy, by which the intellectuals are generally affected: whence the deaf and dumb are, according to the traditional canons, deprived of several offices and privileges of which others are capable.
This case therefore of Zacharias might have occasioned a considerable question, whether he ought not to have been sequestered from his ministry, and deprived of all the privileges of his priesthood, because he had been struck deaf and dumb, but that it happened to him in so signal and extraordinary a way.
And after those days his wife Elisabeth conceived, and hid herself five months; saying,
[She hid herself five months.] "She hid herself five months; saying, Thus hath the Lord dealt with me, in the days wherein he looked on me, to take away my reproach among men."
She was big with child, it is plain, because God had looked on her, and taken away her reproach among men. She hid herself, because the Lord had dealt so with her, till he had taken away her reproach; giving her so remarkable a son, one who was to be so strict a Nazarite, and so famous a prophet. Lest therefore she should any way defile herself by going up and down, and thereby contract any uncleanness upon the Nazarite in her womb, she withdraws, and sequesters herself from all common conversation. Consult Judges 13:4.
There were several amongst the Jews that were wont to take upon them the sect of the Nazarites by their own voluntary vow.
And in the sixth month the angel Gabriel was sent from God unto a city of Galilee, named Nazareth,
[The angel Gabriel.] "R. Simeon Ben Lachish saith, The names of angels went up by the hand of Israel out of Babylon. For before it is said, Then flew one of the seraphim unto me; the seraphim stood before him, Isaiah_6; but afterward the man Gabriel, [Daniel 9:21] and Michael your prince," [Daniel 10:21].
The angel calls Zacharias back to Daniel_9, where the prediction concerning the coming of Messiah was foretold by Gabriel.
And when she saw him; she was troubled at his saying, and cast in her mind what manner of salutation this should be.
[Was troubled, etc.] I. It was very rare and unusual for men to salute any women; at least if that be true in Kiddushin. Rabh Judah, the president of the academy of Pombeditha, went to Rabh Nachman, rector of the academy of Neharde, and after some talk amongst themselves, "Saith Rabh Nachman, Let my daughter Doneg bring some drink, that we may drink together. Saith the other, Samuel saith, We must not use the ministry of a woman. But this is a little girl, saith Nachman. The other answers, But Samuel saith, We ought not to use the ministry of any woman at all. Wilt thou please, saith Nachman, to salute Lelith my wife? But, saith he, Samuel saith, The voice of a woman is filthy nakedness. But, saith Nachman, thou mayest salute her by a messenger. To whom the other; Samuel saith, They do not salute any woman. Thou mayest salute her, saith Nachman, by a proxy her husband. But Samuel saith, saith he again, They do not salute a woman at all."
II. It was still much more rare and unusual to give such a kind of salutation as this, Hail, thou that art highly favoured; by which title Gabriel had saluted Daniel of old: with this exception, that it was terror enough so much as to see an angel.
He shall be great, and shall be called the Son of the Highest: and the Lord God shall give unto him the throne of his father David:
[Shall be called the Son of the Highest.] That is, "he shall be called the Messiah": for Messiah and the Son of God are convertible terms...
And the angel answered and said unto her, The Holy Ghost shall come upon thee, and the power of the Highest shall overshadow thee: therefore also that holy thing which shall be born of thee shall be called the Son of God.
[The Holy Ghost shall come upon thee, etc.] I. This verse is the angel’s gloss upon that famous prophecy, "Behold, a virgin shall conceive and bring forth." The veracity of which Mary not questioning, believing further that she herself was that virgin designed, and yet being utterly ignorant of the manner how so great a thing should be brought about, she only asks, "How shall this be?" etc. Doubtless she took the prophecy in its proper sense, as speaking of a virgin untouched. She knew nothing then, nor probably any part of the nation at that time so much as once thought of that sense by which the Jews have now for a great while disguised that place...
II. Give me leave, for their sakes in whose hand the book is not, to transcribe some few things out of that noble author Morney, which he quotes concerning this grand mystery from the Jews themselves:
"Truth shall spring out of the earth." "R. Joden," saith he, "notes upon this place, that it is not said, Truth shall be born; but shall spring out; because the generation and nativity of the Messiah is not to be as other creatures in the world, but shall be begot without carnal copulation; and therefore no one hath mentioned his father, as who must be hid from the knowledge of men till himself shall come and reveal him." And upon Genesis: "Ye have said (saith the Lord), We are orphans, bereaved of our father; such a one shall your Redeemer be, whom I shall give you." So upon Zechariah, "Behold my servant, whose name is Branch": and out of Psa :, "Thou art a priest after the order of Melchizedek": he saith, R. Berachiah delivers the same things. And R. Simeon Ben Jochai upon Genesis more plainly; viz. "That the Spirit, by the impulse of a mighty power, shall come forth of the womb, though shut up, that will become a mighty Prince, the King Messiah." -- So he.
And, behold, thy cousin Elisabeth, she hath also conceived a son in her old age: and this is the sixth month with her, who was called barren.
[Hath also conceived a son in her old age.] The angel teaches to what purpose it was that women, either barren before or considerably stricken in years, should be enabled to conceive and bring forth; viz. to make way for the easier belief of the conception of a virgin. If they, either beside or beyond nature, conceive a child, this may be some ground of belief that a virgin, contrary to nature, may do so too. So Abraham by faith saw Christ’s day, as born of a pure virgin, in the birth of his own son Isaac of his old and barren wife Sarah.
And Mary arose in those days, and went into the hill country with haste, into a city of Juda:
[She went into the hill country, etc.] that is, to Hebron, Joshua 21:11. For though it is true indeed that the priests after the return from Babylon were not all disposed and placed in all those very same dwellings they had possessed before the captivity, yet it is probable that Zacharias, who was of the seed of Aaron, being here said to dwell in the hill country of Judah; might have his house in Hebron, which is more peculiarly said to be ’the city of Aaron’s offspring.’
And it came to pass, that, when Elisabeth heard the salutation of Mary, the babe leaped in her womb; and Elisabeth was filled with the Holy Ghost:
[The babe leaped in her womb.] So the Seventy, Genesis 25:22; the children leaped in her womb. Psalms 114:4; the mountains skipped. That which is added by Elizabeth, Luke 1:44; the babe leaped in the womb for joy; signifies the manner of the thing, not the cause: q.d. it leaped with vehement exultation. For John, while he was an embryo in the womb, knew no more what was then done, than Jacob and Esau when they were in Rebekah’s womb knew what was determined concerning them.
"At the Red Sea, even the infants sang in the wombs of their mothers"; as it is said, from the fountain of Israel Psalms 68:26; where the Targum, to the same sense, "Exalt the Lord ye infants in the bowels of your mothers; of the seed of Israel." Let them enjoy their hyperboles.
Questionless, Elizabeth had learned from her husband that the child she went with was designed as the forerunner of the Messiah, but she did not yet know of what sort of woman the Messiah must be born till this leaping of the infant in her womb became some token to her.
And Mary abode with her about three months, and returned to her own house.
[Abode with her three months.] A space of time very well known amongst the doctors, defined by them to know whether a woman be with child or no: which I have already observed upon Matthew_1.
And it came to pass, that on the eighth day they came to circumcise the child; and they called him Zacharias, after the name of his father.
[And they called it, etc.] I. "The circumciser said, ’Blessed be the Lord our God, who hath sanctified us by his precepts, and hath given us the law of circumcision.’ " The father of the infant said, "Who hath sanctified us by his precepts, and hath commanded us to enter the child into the covenant of Abraham our father." But where was Zacharias’ tongue for this service?
II. God at the same time instituted circumcision, and changed the names of Abram and Sarah: hence the custom of giving names to their children at the time of their circumcision.
III. Amongst the several accounts why this or that name was given to the sons, this was one that chiefly obtained, viz. For the honour of some person whom they esteemed they gave the child his name: which seems to have guided them in this case here, when Zacharias himself, being dumb, could not make his mind known to them. Mahli the son of Mushi hath the name of Mahli given him, who was his uncle, the brother of Mushi his father, 1 Chronicles 23:21; 1 Chronicles 23:23.
"R. Nathan said, ’I once went to the islands of the sea, and there came to me a woman, whose first-born had died by circumcision; so also her second son. She brought the third to me. I bade her wait a little, till the blood might assuage. She waited a little, and then circumcised him, and he lived: they called him, therefore, by my name, Nathan of Babylon.’ " See also Jerusalem Jevamoth.
"There was a certain family at Jerusalem that were wont to die about the eighteenth year of their age: they made the matter known to R. Jochanan, Ben Zacchai, who said, ’Perhaps you are of Eli’s lineage, concerning whom it is said, The increase of thine house shall die in the flower of their age. Go ye and be diligent in the study of the law, and ye shall live.’ They went and gave diligent heed to the law, and lived. They called themselves, therefore, the family of Jochanan; after his name."
It is disputed in the same tract, whether the son begot by a brother’s raising up seed to his brother should not be called after the name of him that is deceased: for instance, if one dies without a son, and his name be Joseph, or Jochanan, whether the son that is born to this man’s brother, taking his brother’s widow to wife, should not have the name after him that afirst had her, and be called ’Joseph,’ or ’Jochanan.’ Otherwise, indeed, it was very seldom that the son bore the name of the father, as is evident both in the Holy Scriptures and the Rabbinical writers. It cannot be denied but that sometimes this was done; but so very rarely, that we may easily believe the reason why the friends of Zacharias would have given the child his own name was merely, either because they could by no means learn what he himself designed to call him, or else in honour to him, however he lay under that divine stroke at present, as to be both deaf and dumb.
Through the tender mercy of our God; whereby the dayspring from on high hath visited us.
[The dayspring from on high.] I would readily have rendered it the branch from on high; but for what follows, "to give light," etc...
And the child grew, and waxed strong in spirit, and was in the deserts till the day of his showing unto Israel.
[In the deserts.] Whether John was an eremite in the sense as it is now commonly taken, we may inquire and judge by these two things: I. Whether there was ever any eremite in this sense among the Jews. II. Whether he absented himself from the synagogues; and whether he did not present himself at Jerusalem in the feasts: and to this may be added, whether he retired and withdrew himself from the society of mankind. If he absented from the synagogues, he must have been accounted a wicked neighbour. If from the feasts, he transgressed the command, Exodus 23:17. If from the society of mankind, what agreeableness was there in this? It seems very incongruous, that he that was born for this end, "to turn the disobedient," etc. Should withdraw himself from all society and converse with them. Nothing would persuade me sooner that John was indeed an anchoret, than that which he himself saith, that he did not know Jesus, John 1:31; whereas he was so very near akin to him. One might think, surely he must have lain hid in some den or cave of the earth, when, for the space of almost thirty years wherein he had lived, he had had no society with Jesus, so near a kinsman of his, nay, not so much as in the least to know him. But if this were so, how came he to know and so humbly refuse him, when he offered himself to be baptized by him? Matthew 3:14; and this before he was instructed who he was, by the descent of the Holy Ghost upon him? John 1:33.
From this question may arise two more: --
I. Whether John appeared or acted under the notion of a prophet before his entrance into the thirtieth year of his age. I am apt to think he did not: and hence I suppose it is said concerning him, "that he was in the deserts"; that is, he was amongst the rustics, and common rank of men, as a man of no note or quality himself, till he made himself public under the notion and authority of a prophet.
II. Whether he might not well know his kinsman Jesus in all this time, and admire his incomparable sanctity, and yet be ignorant that he was the Messiah. Yea, and when he modestly repulsed him from his baptism, was it that he acknowledged him for the Messiah? (which agrees not with John 1:33) or not rather that, by reason of his admirable holiness, he saw that he was above him?
[Till the day of his shewing unto Israel.] John was unquestionably a priest by birth; and being arrived at the thirtieth year of his age, according to the custom of that nation, he was, after examination of the great council, to have been admitted into the priestly office, but that God had commissioned him another way.
"In the room Gazith the great council of Israel sat, and judged concerning the priesthood. The priest in whom any blemish was found, being clothed and veiled in black, went out and was dismissed: but if he had no blemish, he was clothed and veiled in white, and going in ministered, and gave his attendance with the rest of the priests his brethren. And they made a gaudy day; when there was no blemish found in the seed of Aaron the priest."
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Lightfoot, John. "Commentary on Luke 1". "John Lightfoot Commentary on the Gospels". https://www.studylight.org/
the Week of Proper 25 / Ordinary 30